While we may all know family history as it pertains to our immediate families, it is sometimes a little more challenging to look further back to those family members who preceded us.
I’ve been interested in genealogy since my early college days when I was able to do a family history project for a class assignment. Across the intervening years I’ve added to that project – sometimes adding new information and sometimes deleting information that has proven untrue or incorrect.
One such family tale was that the first ancestor on my paternal family side came to America from England because he was a ship’s captain. That connection proved untrue in later years, despite a compiled family history found in a Maine historical society. The first Norwood from my family tree has been documented but his connection to England is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. There is speculation that his father, Thomas Norwood, who lived in England in the mid 1600s when Royalists and Parliamentarians fought in the British Civil War, was a member of the English parliament and became involved in a regicide plot to get rid of the king and place the king’s son on the throne. Some say he was placed on house arrest on his estate but was able to send his son Francis to the “New World” before anything happened to him.
At this point I am not sure if any of this is true or not. I do know that his son Francis Norwood I had money as he owned a tavern and much land in Massachusetts after arriving in America. That would lead one to think he came from money in England which would make his father being part of parliament more believable.
I’ve followed Francis’ descendents to Bar Harbor and my great-grandfather James M. Norwood, for whom my father is named. However family-told stories don’t always prove true.
Growing up it was said that great-grandfather died from a heart condition. Since my grandfather also died young, the idea of heart problems being in the male line of the family became something everyone took as fact. A trip to Bar Harbor one summer put an end to that tale as a copy of the death certificate at the town clerk’s office listed the cause of death being from perforated ulcers. We assume it was because of the pickled herring that was likely consumed.
Upon his death he left behind a wife and several children, my grandfather and great-aunt being two of them. My grandfather would eventually find his way to northwestern Massachusetts to work at the power stations along the Deerfield River. His sister and mother would eventually move to the same small town of Shelburne Falls, with my great-aunt finding her future husband there.
I always thought she had come to the area as a young woman after high school. I never heard of my great-grandmother ever working once she was in Shelburne Falls. However, I would have been wrong on the first point at least.
A recent scrapbook find was a letter to the editor of the Shelburne Falls and West County Newspaper from a Margaret Loomis, a resident of Shelburne Falls. She is not someone whom I’ve ever met or heard of before but she knew my great-aunt. It is in her letter that I have found a fact to add to my genealogy journey.
Her letter published on December 9, 1988, talks about my great-aunt who had already been admitted to the hospital. I remember that year because it was the very first year I celebrated Christmas without Mom and Dad. They had rushed north to Shelburne Falls as great-aunt Ena had taken several mini strokes and was in the hospital. Her only child, a daughter, and her husband had already passed and she lived alone, waiting for the time she could rejoin them.
With the last stroke that placed her in the hospital she was unable to speak but could write her wishes plainly with pen and paper. She had no wish to be kept alive via machine and so the slow process of dying began with Mom and Dad at her side to give what comfort they could. I’m sure they read this letter to her during those days.
The letter was from a former teacher at Arms Academy, the local high school. She talked about meeting Ena when my great-aunt attended the school. I thought she had already graduated from high school but obviously that wasn’t the case.
Loomis also wrote that Ena worked as a waitress at the Sweetheart Tea House in town and that the high school principal, James Vose, “admired her ambition and tenacity. With his understanding and encouragement she finished the tourist season at the Sweetheart – probably ending Oct. 31. Meanwhile she was keeping up with her studies, so she graduated on time. It was an exhausting experience for her and few people realized it.”
I knew Ena had worked at the Sweetheart and had also gone on to be a school teacher and a Sunday school teacher. The fact that she moved to the area while still in high school and worked at the same time was new and added another piece to the family puzzle.
In some ways it seems a little strange that a “family tale” passed down can be so wrong and yet a nugget of truth can be found in a stranger’s letter.
It’s not the dates or even the potential connections to famous names of the past that keeps me researching the family history. It’s the idea of putting some substance around the lives of my early ancestors. I want to know what they were like growing up, what their lives were like, etc. The recently found newspaper clipping of this letter has given me a glimpse at the teenager Ena used to be. Her father died when she was young and Loomis’ description of her as having “a strong sense of responsibility” rings true because she was the same later in age when I knew her as well as the years in between when Dad knew her from the time he was a child.
Ena kept journals from the time she was young, writing about what she thought about something or someone or how she felt. Those would have been a treasure to read to know how she thought and maybe even understand what her life was like with her dad passing away when she was young. She, however, felt it was wrong to share such thoughts and destroyed them before she become too sick to do so.
But now with this one letter, I’ve gotten a glimpse into Ena and with that I am content.